Thursday, 22 July 2021

Police Woman season two (1975-76)

Police Woman was not the first American TV series about a female undercover cop. That honour goes to Decoy, made way back in 1957. It was also not the first American TV series to feature an action heroine. Honey West beat it to the punch by a decade. Police Woman, which ran on NBC from 1974 to 1978 does however qualify as one of the iconic 70s American cop shows. And it did pave the way for other female-dominated action series such as Charlie’s Angels.

The first season was released on DVD by Sony in 2006 and it’s now difficult (and expensive) to acquire. The Shout! Factory releases of the second and subsequent seasons are much easier to find without breaking the bank which is why I’m reviewing the second season rather than the first.

It was Rio Bravo back in 1959 which launched Angie Dickinson’s career in a major way but it was Police Woman that made her a household name. As Sergeant Pepper Anderson (no-one agrees on what the character’s real first name is) she’s sexy and brash and tough and fairly hardboiled. She does have her vulnerable side and in one season two episode she’s on the point of quitting because she’s tired of being set up as a target all the time.

Earl Holliman plays her boss (and friend) Sergeant Bill Crowley with whom she has a mostly good professional relationship.

Dickinson and Holliman work very well together. There’s some flirtatiousness, some conflict and considerable respect between the two characters. It’s a slightly more complex relationship than you normally get in a cop show.

The other regular members of Crowley’s squad are Investigator Pete Royster (Charles Dierkop) and Investigator Joe Styles (Ed Bernard).

The first season gained a reputation for being quite violent, an aspect that was apparently toned down for the second season which went to air beginning in late 1975.

The show’s major selling point is of course Angie Dickinson. She was forty-three at the time the show premiered but she was still pretty glamorous. Her considerable sex appeal was heavily featured. And she certainly has charisma.

Police Woman does make some attempt to deal with the particular problems Pepper faces being both a cop and a woman. Not so much the professional challenges (Pepper is good at her job and no-one ever questions her competence) but the more interesting emotional challenges. Personally I think Decoy handled this aspect in a more interesting and complex way but Police Woman does at least try to address these issues.

Pepper Anderson is not a super-woman. She’s a well-trained professional who works as part of a team and her job is not to take on heavily-armed bad guys single-handed. A police woman who tried that would soon end up dead. A male police officer who tried that would soon end up dead as well. Successful cops don’t take stupid risks.

No 1970s American cop show is all that realistic - in the 70s the people who made TV shows understood that too much realism made for boring television. But Police Woman is, by the standards of the genre, at least not too wildly unrealistic.

Of course the emphasis here is on action (whereas for real-life cops the emphasis is on routine policework) and Police Woman provides plenty of satisfying action. This is not a Dragnet-style series about ordinary cops just doing ordinary routine police work. 70s audiences expected plenty of thrills.

Police Woman was considered to be quite violent by the standards of 70s American television. Of course if you compare it to its exact contemporary in Britain, The Sweeney, then Police Woman looks ridiculously tame.

If you want a realistic emotionally powerful TV series about a police woman, watch Decoy. If you want a fun action-packed series about a police woman then Police Woman delivers the goods.

Episode Guide

Pawns of Power is a pretty cynical season opener. Pepper is undercover at a moving casino (it’s in the back of a semi-trailer) but when the cops make the bust they discover they’ve blundered into an investigation by a high-powered state organised crime squad run by the oily Moulton (Roddy McDowall). Pepper has to stay undercover to take the place of one of Mouton’s people who’s been murdered, but Moulton doesn’t care how many people he puts at risk as long as he gets the big bust he wants. He’s quite happy to sacrifice Pepper and she knows it and she doesn’t like it one little bit. It’s a routine story but the depth of the cynicism makes it interesting.

In The Score druggies are dying from speed that is just too pure and too potent. The speed is coming from a new lab but the nice little dealing setup starts to go wrong when a courier absconds with the merchandise because she’s decided that dealing drugs is wrong. This episode is a bit of a mess, trying too hard to capture the drug culture atmosphere.

Paradise Mall is an improvement. A serial killer is targeting blonde women and he leaves the bodies wearing bridal veils. There are several possible suspects, some decent misdirection and a twist ending. It’s a bit contrived but it works extremely well.

Pattern for Evil
involves an attempted Mob takeover of the garment trade. Pepper goes undercover, as a model naturally, which provides opportunities to have her running around in bathing suits. A solid episode.

In The Chasers Pepper gets knocked down by a dry cleaning truck. When she wakes up in the hospital she discovers, much to her surprise, that she’s retained a lawyer. She’s stumbled upon an ambulance-chasing racket. They don’t just take advantage of traffic accidents. They manufacture them. Pepper gets herself involved in order to get the evidence the cops need. The great Ida Lupino guest stars as an oily crooked social worker. It’s standard Police Woman stuff - Pepper right in the middle of things and getting herself into lots of danger, a decent enough script, some smooth villains and some action as the case turns into a case of triple murder. Another good solid episode.

Cold Wind opens with two guys who get shot to death as they arrive for work at a soft drink factory. There’s one promising suspect who has told the police a whole lot of lies and there’s another promising suspect whose car matched the description of one that was spotted leaving the murder scene. Pepper’s job is to get close to suspect number two. He’s a nice young man but a bit strange. There are some literary and artistic clues - a painting and a book, both called The Cold Wind which Pepper is pretty sure represents death. This above-average episode has a very nasty sting in the tail.

A parole officer is shot to death and in Above and Beyond Pepper goes undercover as a parolee. Parole officers tend to make enemies but this particular one was pretty popular. Pepper is offered a one-way trip to Mexico and the guy offering it could be the killer. This one gives Angie Dickinson the opportunity to be a bit hardboiled but she doesn’t overdo it. There are some obvious leads but after all any one of the guy’s parolees could have had some motive. There’s some decent misdirection, a very neat piece of deduction from a physical clue and at least one very good plot twist. A good episode.

In Farewell, Mary Jane the narcotics squad needs help. One of their informers, a former airline pilot named Klein (played by Lance LeGault of A-Team fame) has gone rogue and turned out to be a real bad guy after all and he’s crazy and dangerous as well. Crowley persuades a down-on-his-luck racing car driver to help out and the driver and Pepper pose as big-time dealers. There’s plenty of suspense and it’s a pretty good episode.

Pepper gets caught up in a bank robbery and taken hostage by a hillbilly gang who think they’re reliving some old movie in Blaze of Glory. Vern, the leader of the gang, wants to go out in a blaze of glory like Dillinger. Pepper manages to convince Vern and his brother Charlie Joe that she’s a hooker and that she’s on their side but Vern’s girlfriend Laurene hates Pepper at first sight. It’s a good action-filled chase episode.

In Glitter with a Bullet Pepper goes undercover as a reporter to investigate corruption in the record business. Tommy Donlevy is a big pop star but all is not well with Tommy. His friend and bass player Bobby died and the police suspect it was murder. Tommy’s band is very very 1970s - glitter and spangles. Tommy is being manipulated but he’s too crazy and strung-out to figure out what’s going on. There are some very nasty people around Tommy. If you believe this episode the record business in the 70s was an out-and-out racket, a world of sleazy deals and murder. It’s a bit silly but kind of money although it relies rather too much on clichés (including that old favourite of an attempt to kill the heroine by cutting her car’s brake line).

In The Purge Crowley shoots and kills a fifteen-year-old boy during a bungled raid on a warehouse. Crowley gets suspended and could face manslaughter charges. The sting that Pepper and a retired conman cook up to catch the bad guys is reasonably clever but the problem with this episode is that we’re supposed to be on the side of Crowley and the cops but they really don’t come out of the whole affair looking very good. The moral ambiguities needed to be explored a bit less simplistically but maybe prime-time TV in 1975 wasn’t ready for that.

Don't Feed the Pigeons is about a particularly cruel gang of bunco artists preying on old ladies. Pepper infiltrates the gang. The scam is complicated and requires a detailed explanation which is slotted in reasonably effectively. Personally I always enjoy stories about complex con games so I liked this episode.

In The Hit we have gangsters and boxing, the world’s fattest bookmaker and the world’s most incompetent hitman. This hitman has made a mess of his last two hits but if he keeps trying maybe he’ll actually manage to kill someone. Pepper and Crowley and the squad have to try to make sure that doesn’t happen. A slightly odd but reasonably OK episode.

has what seems to be a simple plot but it gets complicated. A mute girl named Glenna is worried about the disappearance of her sister Beth. She thinks Beth’s husband Julian may have murdered her. Pepper gets involved in the case because she knows sign language. The key evidence might possibly be found at Julian’s cabin on Frost Lake. Pepper stumbles across a clue that suggests that what is really going on maybe be something quite different. A good performance by the underrated Joanna Pettet as Glenna. Quite a good story, with the audience initially having no more idea than Pepper about where the truth lies.

A gang rumble leads to the shooting of a cop in Incident Near a Black & White. This one is a bit contrived and predictable and is mostly notable for featuring a dangerously incompetent senior police officer, and for the suggestion (unusual for 1975) that the police sometimes behave badly. We also get to see Crowley and Pepper in uniform dealing with routine incidents (there’s even an Adam-12 reference).

The Melting Point of Ice starts with a diamond robbery in which everything goes wrong. A jeweller is killed, one of the robbers is shot and then when they stash the uncut stones they get ripped off by a couple of amateurs. Pepper goes undercover selling coffee and burgers from the back of a truck - you won’t be surprised to learn that she sells a lot of coffee and burgers. The cops have to find those hapless amateurs before the professionals do. It’s nothing special but it’s a solid episode.

Pepper goes into business in The Pawn Shop. A well-organised burglary gang has been ripping off the rich folks of Lambert Hills. Crowley has the bright idea of setting up a pawn shop which will appear to be a front for a fencing operation. It’s not a bad story but the presence of Joan Collins as the guest star makes it a must-see. She plays a movie star who takes a shine to Crowley.

In Angela Crowley’s squad makes a big heroin bust but the cop, Larry, taking the evidence to the preliminary hearing manages to lose the evidence. The question is whether he lost it deliberately. No-one wants to think Larry is corrupt but the signs seem to point that way. Especially when it’s discovered he’s been dating a mobster’s daughter. An OK story, and darker and more hard-hitting than the average Police Woman episode.

Wednesday's Child is a pretty routine episode. A cat burglar is facing a long stretch in prison if he doesn’t coöperate. The big problem for the cops is two witnesses who have to kept alive. It’s all just too predictable.

In Generation of Evil clean-cut college kid Steve Glass (played by Barry Williams, yes Greg Brady from The Brady Bunch) is kidnapped. The reason he’s been kidnapped is that he’s the grandson of gangster Morrie Hirsch. The kidnappers want two million dollars. Hirsch won’t co-operate with the police but they have a lead, which leads to Pepper going undercover as a Vegas showgirl so she can get close to sleazy casino operator Lou Malik (played with style by Robert Vaughn).

The most interesting thing about this episode is Morrie Hirsch. He was once a real big shot but now he’s a tired old man and he’s ailing and the only thing he cares about is his grandson. Now he discovers that he has no friends and nobody wants to help him out and he can’t get his hands on the two million and his world is falling down about his ears. He might have been a feared gangster once but now he’s an oddly sympathetic character, too stubborn to ask the police for help but increasingly desperate. So despite a routine plot this is quite a good character-driven episode.

Double Image starts with a blackmail racket, a variant of the old badger game, but it leads to murder. One of the participants in the blackmail scam offers to assist the police and Pete Royster is assigned to protect her. Unfortunately Pete gets much too emotionally involved. This really becomes the main focus of this episode (and it’s a very good episode).

In Mother Love a baby is kidnapped. The identity of the kidnapper comes as a surprise and the bad news is that she’s crazy and she’s prepared to kill to keep that baby. And she does kill. A reasonably entertaining episode with a nice double-cross twist.

Task Force: Cop Killer is a two-parter and it suffers from many of the typical problems of two-part episodes. It takes forever for the actual story to get going. Pepper is persuaded to apply for a paramilitary-style police motorcycle task force. I have no idea why a detective sergeant would want to do something like that. The last thing a detective would want to do is to go back in uniform and go back to issuing traffic citations. Pepper falls for a hot shot motorcycle cop named Matteo. While Matteo is romancing Pepper they’re being watched by a peeping tom, and Matteo know who the peeping tom is.

The motorcycle task force has a few run-ins with a biker gang. There’s a suspicion that a state senator’s daughter who ran away from home a few years earlier is riding with the gang. Finally, after an hour of pointless riding around on motorcycles the plot starts to kick in when a cop gets run over by a van.

The second part is a marginal improvement. There’s an obvious suspect, and there’s a dead girl’s body found in a ravine. Naturally Pepper manages to get herself kidnapped yet again. As a one-hour episode this one might have worked but there’s not enough plot for two hours and the motorcycle task force stuff is a bit creepy. A disappointing end to an otherwise pretty decent season.

Final Thoughts

Police Woman holds up pretty well and it has Angie Dickinson’s star power. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 11 July 2021

The Veil (1958)

The Veil was an ill-fated American horror anthology TV series made by Hal Roach Studios in 1958, with Boris Karloff hosting and also acting in most episodes. Unfortunately after ten episodes had been made Hal Roach Studios went broke. The series was consigned, unaired, to the vault.

This series was obviously influenced by the success of Alfred Hitchcock Presents which had demonstrated that an anthology series could be very successful indeed. While Alfred Hitchcock Presents concentrated on mysteries, always with a sting in the tail, The Veil takes an overtly supernatural approach. It's mostly not full-blooded horror but there is never any doubt as to the supernatural nature of the events which unfold.

It’s difficult to judge this series fairly since it didn’t go to air and the producers therefore did not have the opportunity to refine the formula or to discover which types of stories worked and which didn’t. The Thriller anthology seres which Karloff hosted a couple of years later was very successful because in that case the producers spent the first half of the first season trying to get that formula right. As a result Thriller moved more and more into outright horror territory because the first few experiments in full-blooded horror proved to be so popular. Had The Veil gone to air the weaknesses would presumably have been quickly ironed out.

As a result The Veil is rather erratic in quality. The potential was there but it needed to become more focused. Several episodes have great build-ups but they suffer from a failure to provide a totally satisfactory pay-off.

One thing you need to keep in mind is that this series is not aiming for visceral horror. It’s aiming for a subtle sense of mild spookiness. It mostly doesn’t deal with terrifying events but with unsettling inexplicable events. Most of the stories are to some degree left hanging and I have a suspicion that this is quite deliberate. The aim is not to resolve things in a definite way but to leave the viewer scratching his head in puzzlement, rather than scared out of his wits. We’re not supposed to be sure whether what we’ve seen is supernatural or not, in fact we’re not supposed to have any idea as to what the explanation really is. So we get stories that are suggestive, that are hints of odd happenings, rather than fully-developed stories.

Whether this was a wise strategy for the series to adopt is something we’ll never know. Since it didn’t go to air and remained unseen for many years there’s no way of knowing how viewers at the time would have reacted.

The result is that The Veil has an odd kind of feel that you’ll either like or you won’t. If you accept it as a series of atmospheric vignettes concerning strange occurrences then you’ll find that it has a certain appeal, but you do have to accept that the plots usually don’t go in for the kill in the way you’re going to expect.

Karloff tells us in his episode introductions that these are are all stories based on actual events, a claim that the viewer might choose to take with a grain of salt although in some cases it might well be true.

For most viewers the biggest attraction of this series is that Karloff appears in every episode as an actor and gets to play a wide variety of rôles, sometimes villainous, sometimes comic, sometimes as hero or victim. It’s a fine showcase for Karloff’s acting versatility.

The Veil remained lost in obscurity until the 1990s. Since then there have been several DVD releases. The Something Weird DVD release that I have (which is still available) includes the ten episodes that were known to exist at the time. The original backdoor pilot episode, made for another anthology series, and one further episode later came to light.

Episode Guide

Vision of Crime takes place in the late 19th century. A man is murdered in his shop. The somewhat disreputable Albert Ketch was seen running from the scene so he is quickly arrested. It all seems straightforward but it isn’t, because at the exact moment that Hart Bosworth was slain his brother George, hundreds of miles away on a ship bound for France, had a vision of the murder. He didn’t see the killer clearly enough to identify him but he did see enough to know that it was not Albert Ketch. Somehow George has to convince the police that Ketch is innocent but if he tells them he had a vision they’ll think he’s mad. Even his fiancée Julie will think he’s mad.

This episode boasts an impressive cast. There’s Boris Karloff as the blustering and rather inept police sergeant, Willmore, who takes charge of the case. There’s Patrick Macnee from The Avengers as the much more efficient Constable Hawton. And there’s Robert Hardy (who went on to fame as one of the stars of All Creatures Great and Small) as George Bosworth.

The first problem with this episode is the uneasy mixture of spookiness and broad humour. The second problem is the failure to develop the spookiness enough. And thirdly, it just doesn’t have any real suspense or mystery. It’s all too obvious and the resolution falls flat. It’s certainly a very disappointing start to the series.

Girl on the Road
, written and directed by George Waggner, is a major improvement. John Prescott is driving along near Lookout Point when he sees a girl who seems to be having car trouble. It turns out that her name is Lila and she’s run out of petrol. He offers to give her a lift so that they can get some petrol but he takes her to a bar instead. He’s obviously very interested in getting to know her and while she’s understandably cautious (his intentions seem a bit obvious) she seems at least mildly interested in him.

Then things take a slightly strange turn. She gets very frightened, for no obvious reason. She wants to leave, alone, but she does agree to meet him later that night at Lookout Point. They do meet, and things take a much stranger turn after an elderly man named Morgan Debs (played by Karloff) turns up and tells Prescott that Lila won’t be turning up, although she already has turned up. He tells Prescott that he should forget the girl.

Prescott has however become rather obsessed. He is determined to see Lila again. He is sure that she is in trouble. His efforts to find her again lead him to an unexpected discovery about the nature of her trouble.

The payoff is rather low-key and doesn’t have the punch that modern viewers will expect but it works reasonably well. The whole story has a nicely mysterious atmosphere with Prescott becoming increasingly bewildered, and increasingly unsure about what Morgan Debs is up to. I liked this one.

Food on the Table is the tale of a sea captain from 18th century Massachusetts. His most recent voyage almost ended in disaster when the ship was overrun by venomous snakes. Two crewmen died but now the ship has reached port safely. You would think that Captain Elwood would be anxious to see his wife Ruth but he isn’t. He dislikes and resents her (for reasons that will later be revealed). She turns up at the Mariners’ Club when he is carousing with his seafaring buddies. They’re just about to sit down to a splendid dinner when Ruth, n a jealous rage, hurls all the food onto the floor. When they get home we discover that one of those venomous snakes survived the voyage and is lurking in the captain’s luggage.

What happens next isn’t as obvious as you think it’s going to be. The captain’s marital difficulties will however shortly come to a head. And the supernatural will of course make an appearance. It’s a reasonably spooky tale. Karloff’s performance as Captain Elwood helps a good deal. This is not a bad little story.

In The Doctors Karloff plays an elderly Italian doctor, Dr. Carlo Marcabienti, in a small and very backward village. He is much-loved by all. A little girl gets very sick but there’s a fierce storm raging so the doctor’s son Angelo (also a doctor) has to attend the girl. The girl’s family won’t let him treat her because they don’t believe he’s a real doctor.

This is not a horror story. It’s simply a tale of an odd occurrence which seems to defy explanation. This seems to be the kind of story that was going to become a speciality of this series. The downside is that you don’t get a real horror pay-off but the upside is that you get an atmosphere that is mysterious and unsettling. I quite enjoyed it but going for quirky stories with a subtle hint of the supernatural was a risky strategy that would have left some viewers disappointed.

The Crystal Ball is another episode that is too subtle for its own good and again we don’t get a fully satisfying pay-off. Edmond is a young writer in 19th century Paris. His fiancée Marie gives him the big brush-off (she’s going to marry his rich publisher instead because she wants money) but she gives him a parting gift - a crystal ball. She thinks it’s just a harmless bauble but she’s wrong. Edmond sees things in the crystal ball, things that could have disastrous consequences. But consequences for whom?

This is another story that really needed a clever twist at the end (of the kind that Alfred Hitchcock Presents always provided) but we don’t get it. It’s another episode that feels strangely unfinished.

In Genesis an old farmer is dying. He has two sons. One, John, is a devoted son, the other (Jamie) stole some money and ran off to the big city. Now Jamie has returned in the hope of getting his inheritance. It all depends on the old man’s will. Or in this case wills - he seems to have made several wills. The vital clue is connected to a passage in the Bible and John and Jamie are modern versions of Esau and Jacob. It’s another story that involves the supernatural without being a horror story and once again the script needed to provide a bit more punch.

Destination Nightmare is about a father (played by Karloff) who wants his son to follow in his footsteps and take over his aviation business. He’s worried that his son doesn’t have what it takes. The tensions between them rise when the son almost crashes after seeing a vision. Maybe it has something to do with the father’s nightmares about the war. This episode is much more fully developed than most and pays off pretty nicely whilst still retaining that slight edge of uncertainty that was the trademark of the series. A very good episode.

Summer Heat
sees The Veil doing a Rear Window, or at least that’s the initial impression. A mild-mannered New York shipping clerk named Edward Page sees a murder committed in the building opposite his apartment. When the police arrive they find that the apartment in which Page claimed the murder happened is vacant. Page ends ups in Bellevue but the psychiatrist there (played by Karloff) is convinced that Page isn’t crazy. And then we get the twist. This is quite a decent episode.

The Return of Madame Vernoy is set in India and deals with reincarnation. Santha Naidu is a young woman who not only believes that she had a past life, she remembers that past life vividly. She was a woman very happily married to a M. Armand Vernoy. She died in 1927, shortly after the birth of her son. A year later she was reborn as Santha Naidu. M. Vernoy is now a man in late middle age but he is still very much alive. Santha can’t wait to tell him the good news that his beloved wife has been reborn. They can pick up their life together where it left off.

Things don’t go as smoothly as she’d expected. Her son Krishna, now a young man (and played by a very young George Hamilton), refuses to believe that Santha is his mother. M. Vernoy is thrown into an emotional turmoil. He doesn’t know what to believe. This is a fairly typical episode in the sense that there’s no horror, just something that is inexplicable and puzzling and disturbing for everyone involved. It is, typically for this series, very low-key. But it’s not a bad episode.

Jack the Ripper was actually made by a different studio but was acquired by Hal Roach Studios. They added the Boris Karloff intro and outro but Karloff does not appear in this episode. Walter Durst is a professional clairvoyant. Both he and his wife are convinced that his powers of clairvoyance are real. Walter has a dream in which a woman is murdered and the next day the body of Jack the Ripper’s second victim is found, precisely at the spot foretold in Walter’s dream. Walter goes to Scotland Yard but they simply laugh at him. And then he has another vision. This story has quite a similar feel to the episodes of The Veil so including it in that series made perfect sense, and was a nice way of saving some money. Quite a decent episode.

Final Thoughts

The Veil isn’t scary but it does offer a slightly unsettling slightly spooky feel which was what it was aiming for. If that doesn’t bother you then you’ll probably like it. If you’re expecting full-blown horror you’ll be disappointed. Either way it’s reasonably interesting and probably worth a look, especially if you’re a hardcore Karloff fan.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

The Six Million Dollar Man: The Solid Gold Kidnapping (1973)

The Solid Gold Kidnapping, which went to air in late 1973, is the third of The Six Million Dollar Man TV movies. Like the previous movie it was directed by Russ Mayberry. This one was written by Alan Caillou and Larry Alexander.

As in Wine, Women and War this is very much Steve Austin in James Bond mode. The pre-opening credits action prologue is rather Bondian. Even the theme song (sung by Dusty Springfield) is a bit Bondian. And as in Wine, Women and War there’s a lot of rather risqué sexual innuendo which Lee Majors tries to deliver in as Bondian a manner as possible. There are exotic settings (thanks to the copious use of stock footage) and there are three Bond girls (sorry, Austin Girls). And one of them is a beautiful but deadly Contessa. There’s even a casino scene. I keep expecting the hero to say, “The name is Austin. Steve Austin.” And then to order a vodka martini, shaken not stirred.

This time Steve is up against an international criminal organisation, very much like SPECTRE. Very very much like SPECTRE. They specialise in kidnapping high-ranking diplomats and governments officials for immense ransoms. Their target this time is not just a very senior American diplomat (named William Henry Cameron), he is also a man who knows all of America’s military secrets. He should be worth every penny of the billion dollar ransom they’re asking. Yes, a cool billion. In gold.

That action prologue is actually a very good action set-piece in a ruined Mayan temple.

The really cool idea in this movie (and it’s a very science fictional idea) is the method the OSI uses to find the kidnappers. Genius scientist (who also happens to be young, attractive and female) Dr Erica Berger (Elizabeth Ashley) has developed a technique for transplanting brain cells in rats to give one rat the memories of another rat. She hasn’t tested it on humans yet but now she’s going to have to do just that - with herself as the guinea pig. She transplants brain cells from one of the kidnappers who was killed into her own brain. Now that she has that man’s memories she should be able to direct Steve to wherever the kidnappers have stashed Cameron. Which means she’ll have to go with him, offering an excuse for Austin to have a beautiful woman with him on his mission. And for some hints of an emotional attachment. Steve sees Erica as being a bit like him - a human experiment. And the experiment might threaten her humanity.

The US Government agrees to the ransom and the gold is sent by freighter to Rome, with (weirdly) just one guy to guard it.

I thought Lee Majors was fine in the first two movies but I like him more in this one - he seems just a bit more relaxed and more confident. And a bit more convincingly Bond-like.

Elizabeth Ashley gives an effective enough performance, especially when she has to portray the trauma of having someone else’s sometimes unpleasant memories. Luciana Paluzzi is fine as the Contessa, a typical Bond movie female. Richard Anderson is suitably ruthless as Steve’s boss Oscar Goldman, a man who has no qualms about sacrificing people to get the job done.

John Vernon was always good at being cold-blooded and ruthless and he makes a good chief villain. Not quite Bond villain stature but still pretty menacing.

There’s quite a complex plot here and it has some very neat twists. The twist with the gold is very clever. The subplot with Erica possibly losing her mind is handled well without unnecessary histrionics. Steve Austin gets quite a few opportunities to demonstrate his super powers. The opening action set-piece is the best but the speedboat chase is good and there’s some decent suspense.

Wine, Women and War is perhaps just a little better but The Solid Gold Kidnapping plays very well as a cut-price Bond movie with some nifty science fiction elements. This is pretty entertaining stuff and it’s highly recommended.

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Decoy (1957)

Decoy was a syndicated 1957 cop drama that has considerable historical interest, being the first American cop series to feature a woman as the lead character. It’s also unusual for American TV of that era in featuring some actual location shooting with some great New York street scenes.

Officer Patricia “Casey” Jones (Beverly Garland) is a New York policewoman. She doesn’t have a regular assignment. Like a lot of her fellow policewomen she gets assigned to various squads when they need a female officer to go undercover.

The series only lasted for one season (of 39 episodes). The obvious explanation for this is that it tried to be fairly realistic. Policewomen didn’t spend most of their time beating up bad guys or shooting them. When assigned to plain-clothes work they just went undercover and tried to blend into whatever environment they found themselves in, either patiently gathering evidence or equally patiently for a criminal to take the bait (the policewoman being the bait). Which means that it’s a much less action-packed series than something like M Squad. The insistence on not making Casey an unrealistic action heroine was admirable but would not have helped the ratings.

It’s not hard to see why none of the networks were interested - they would have had no idea what to do with a series such as this which is too unconventional and low-key to fit neatly into the cop show genre.

The show’s biggest asset is without a doubt Beverly Garland, an extraordinarily talented actress who should have become a major star but it just never happened for her. The format of the series gives her plenty of opportunities to stretch her acting wings. An undercover policewoman like Casey had to be an actress of sorts, constantly playing different rôles which of course means that Garland gets to vary her performances (and she does so very skilfully).

She also has to be tough and she has to be sensitive and occasionally she has to be vulnerable. All of which Garland manages with ease.

It also has to be said that Beverly Garland is very glamorous. And when she gets undercover assignments that require her to play up the glamour she’s very very glamorous indeed.

At the end of every episode Casey breaks the fourth wall and gives us a spiel about the work of policewomen. This sort of thing (along with voiceover narration) was a common but irritating feature of a lot of 50s cop shows. Of course the producers needed the coöperation of police departments so the spiels occasionally sound like public relations releases.

The scripts are, on the whole, extremely strong and despite the half-hour format they have a lot more complexity than you might expect. They’re pleasingly varied - sometimes very dark, sometimes slightly whimsical. And on occasions they’re not afraid to address tricky ethical dilemmas.

It’s fascinating to compare Decoy to Police Woman. Police Woman is a wonderfully entertaining series but Decoy is more interesting, more psychologically complex, more realistic and more intelligent. It can be dark but it can be hopeful as well. And while Angie Dickinson has enormous charisma Beverly Garland is in her own way just as memorable.

Episode Guide

In Stranglehold a sailor has been murdered and a woman, Molly Orchid, has been picked up trying to pawn the dead man’s watch. The police think her boyfriend George did the killing but they know nothing about him apart from his name. It’s Casey’s job to befriend Molly and find out who George is. It turns out to be a much more dangerous job than she expected.

The Red Clown is an episode that offers a clue as why this series only lasted one season. Casey is trying to track down an errant husband so that he can be forced to pay child support. Casey has visions of reuniting father and daughter but finds that putting families back together isn’t so easy. It’s not a bad story. In fact it’s very good. I admire the series for showing a policewoman working the sort of unglamorous everyday cases that a real policewoman would have been involved in. It’s just not a cop show story. There’s no crime, no arrests, no guns, no-one is in any danger. It’s just a cop trying to bring a father and a daughter back together. When you compare it to contemporary cop shows like Dragnet or M Squad you can see why a lot of viewers were going to be alienated or mystified. In TV in that era a series that did not fit genre expectations was going to have trouble finding an audience.

In The Phoner Casey has to trap a man making obscene phone calls to a woman named Betty. It could be more dangerous than it sounds, for both Betty and Casey. An effectively tense episode.

To Trap a Thief starts with Casey on a routine assignment, trying to catch pickpockets. Then gunfire breaks out. It’s the aftermath of an armed robbery. The robbery itself is far from routine. $17,000 was stolen but the thieves only had $7,000 on them when apprehended. What happened to the other $10,000? Suspicion falls on veteran cop Frank Torrino. As part of the investigation Casey poses as a blackmailer but what she uncovers is not what she expected. It’s a solid story but what makes this a typical (and very good) Decoy episode is the compassion for human weakness.

Dream Fix
deals with a junkie, a young woman who might lead the cops to a big-time dealer. Casey goes undercover as a nurse at a rehab hospital. Another typical Decoy episode with the emphasis on the human side of police work.

The Savage Payoff deals with sports betting and rigged basketball games. Casey goes undercover to befriend a player whom the cops suspect is involved. He’s a nice boy and Casey hates to think he might be mixed up in anything dishonest. Another story in which right and wrong is not something straightforward.

Casey finds herself behind bars in Deadly Corridor, posing as a prisoner to solve the murder of an inmate. She might find the answer but she might not like it. This one gives Beverly Garland a chance to do her tough girl thing. Not a bad story.

In Escape into Danger Casey arrives home after a long shift to find that one of her neighbours has committed a murder. Mary Waleski has killed her violent alcoholic husband and now Mary has fled. But there’s something really important that Mary doesn’t know, so Casey has to find her. A good tense story with an interesting twist - the police are hunting a woman they know to be innocent.

Casey is launched into high society in Necklace of Glass. She’s the bait in the trap for the man responsible for a series of jewel robberies. It’s the kind of job she’s done before but you can’t always be sure things will go smoothly. A good episode which gives Beverly Garland the chance to show how glamorous she can be.

In Scape Goat Casey screws up badly. She and a male detective had to go to the airport to take a woman into custody (the woman had been extradited from Canada). Casey followed her instincts and took the cuffs off the woman. Casey was wrong, but she was also right. Her instincts told her correctly that this woman was no ordinary criminal. Now Casey and her colleague are in race against time to prevent a tragedy. This is another Decoy episode focused on the emotional pressures that can lead a person to commit a crime. And it’s another solid episode.

In Two Days to Kill Casey has to act as bodyguard to a 18-year-old named Selma who is a vital witness against her hoodlum boyfriend. It’s only for two days but it’s a long two days for Casey. She and Selma are just not going to get along and Selma is going to be trouble. A darker episode, and a good one.

Queen of Diamonds
takes Casey undercover as a photographer in a night-club. Her job is to find evidence that will break an unbreakable alibi. There’s a complex romantic triangle involved as well, and conflicting loyalties that could play out disastrously. There are complications from the past and the past can haunt the present. A very good episode.

My Brother's Killer starts with Casey getting a very lucky break. An incident that is absurdly trivial could lead to the capture of a man wanted for his part in an armed hold-up that ended in murder. That lucky break isn’t as straightforward as it seemed and the result is a remarkably dark, brutal suspense-filled episode with some real film noir atmosphere. A truly excellent episode, the best of the series so far.

In Bullet of Hate a teenage girl is driven to murder her cruel aunt, or at least that’s how it looks. Casey isn’t so sure. She’s spotted quite a few clues that tell a different story but she’ll have to move carefully to find evidence to support her suspicions. There’s certainly plenty of festering hate in this overheated melodramatic episode. Decoy is usually a bit more subtle than this.

Casey infiltrates a major shoplifting gang in Death Watch. Her job is to find the man behind the operation, which she does only she finds out that he is involved in a lot more than shoplifting. She also has to deal with a punch-drunk young ex-fighter. This episode deals with evil but as usual with some touches of complexity. Unfortunately it’s an episode that should be suspenseful but the suspense falls a bit flat.

In Odds Against the Jockey there’s murder at the race-track. This one has a decent mystery plot and Casey is charmed by a loveable rogue who may be a killer. It’s fairly light-hearted but stylish and slick and overall it’s a very good episode.

A model is murdered in the garment district in New York in Dressed for the Kill. She wasn’t a very popular model. Casey goes undercover as a model to find the killer (there’s no point in having a series about a beautiful policewoman unless there’s at least one episode in which she has to pose as a model). The mystery in this one isn’t too challenging but it’s a decent enough episode.

In An Eye for an Eye Casey goes undercover as a junkie after a female junkie is murdered. The police want the murderer and they want to break up the narcotics ring that was supplying her. It turns out the dead girl’s brother was involved in the drug ring. It’s a story of loyalty betrayed and it’s not bad.

The Challenger is a boxing story, dealing with mobsters trying to take control of a young boxer’s career. Casey gets involved when she encounters the boxer’s wife. The problem of course is that no-one in the boxing game is prepared to talk to the cops but Casey isn’t giving up. A reasonably good and rather dark episode and one which emphasises the difficulties the police face when people make the mistake of thinking they can deal with criminals on their own.

In Across the World an import-export business is dealing in more than just machine tools and the owner of the business is murdered when she finds out too much. Casey goes undercover as the new owner and finds herself in the middle of some complicated double-crosses. And she gets beaten up for her trouble. Not a bad episode.

The Showplace
deals with a bar that is a front for prostitution although this is implied rather than stated outright. One of the girls has been murdered. Casey has to find the killer, preferably without getting herself killed. A decent episode.

Reasonable Doubt is interesting. The police have one suspect for an armed robbery and they want to nail the guy’s brother as well. Casey has to find the evidence to prove the brother’s guilt but she’s not comfortable with the lies and manipulation in which she has to engage in order to do so. It’s rather surprising for a cop show in 1957 to be so honest about the methods of the police. There are several layers of betrayal in this extremely good episode.

Night of Fire is an arson case. The chief suspect is one of the office girls, a former patient in a mental hospital. This one gets just a tiny bit preachy but there’s some good stuff with alibis.

In Saturday Lost Casey has to help a woman who has lost her memory. Her memory loss is real enough but maybe she’s lost her memory because there’s something that she really doesn’t want to remember. A good story.

In High Swing a drug overdose leads the police to a robbery racket and, as so often in tis series, we’re dealing with criminals who are tragic rather than evil. And Casey discovers once again that when you work undercover you get inside people’s lives. A very good episode.

A high-stakes gambling club is the target in Earthbound Satellite, but the operators are very clever indeed. Casey is of course undercover but she’s without backup. There’s some fun 1950s high-tech stuff in this story and it’s another case which for Casey has a rather bitter-sweet ending. A very good episode.

In The Sound of Tears a rich young man is shot by a woman in Central Park. She really wanted to make sure of the job - she shot him six times at close range. A cop on the scene let her get away. There is one clue - a dachshund which may belong to the murderess. Another story that combines mystery and emotional depth.

Ladies Man
starts interestingly - a woman carrying a cardboard box on the subway, but it’s a deadly box. And the man who gave her the box has to be found. There’s a good tense climax in a cabin in the woods. A pretty good episode.

Cry Revenge starts with a woman reporting threatening phone calls from a pair of hoodlums. Casey is assigned to protect her and discovers there’s a complicated family drama going on as well. There’s a daughter who wants revenge and there are illusions that would be better off being shattered. The police case against the hoodlums collapses but that family drama will have unexpected consequences. There’s a crime story here but it’s the family dynamics that really matter, with Casey remaining mostly in the background. Another emotional story but it works.

In The Gentle Gun-Man a cheap hood named Danny gets killed in a bungled robbery but it’s his gun the police are interested in. Lots of similar guns have been used in recent robberies - guns that have been so cleverly doctored that they are completely untraceable. Casey poses as Danny’s widow to try to find the source of these guns and she learns that sometimes criminals can be not just sympathetic - they can be really really nice people. But she still has her job to do. A very good episode.

On the surface Night Light is about upscale jewel thefts but it’s really about the complex relationship between a father and his son. Nick (Martin Balsam) is a crook and a loser but he loses his son. Unfortunately that’s going to be very bad for the kid in the long run. Casey wants to solve the case but as usual she’s more interested in the human cost of crime. And that’s really what this series is all about. A very good episode.

In Fiesta at Midnight Juan Ortega is fresh off the boat from Puerto Rico and now he’s facing a murder charge. He has an alibi but the police can’t find the girl who can confirm it. All Juan can tell them is that her name is Maria and she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. The alibi stuff is handled well and the clue that leads Casey to the solution is clever. A good episode.

The Lieutenant Had a Son is another domestic drama episode. A soldier is looking for the son he abandoned five years earlier. He finds him but the result is a heart-breaking tug-of-love story. These are the stories that Decoy did very well, accepting the complexities of domestic situations in which nobody is actually the bad guy but there seems to be no way to resolve the situation with someone getting hurt. As so often Casey doesn’t see her job as being to arrest people but to persuade them to do the right thing. A fine episode.

In Shadow of Van Gogh someone is producing high quality forgeries of Van Gogh paintings. The forgeries are so good that it’s almost as if they’re being painted by someone who really thinks he is Van Gogh. Which proves to be the case. But Casey’s job is not to find the forger but the man behind the forgeries. This is a reasonably successful attempt to explore the strange world of art. Maybe it’s a bit too respectful of that world but it’s more successful in getting into the mind of a struggling artist. A good episode.

In Tin Pan Payoff Casey discovers that the music business is a world of glamour and excitement but also a world of heartbreak, treachery and murder.

Blind Date starts with a woman involved in a minor traffic accident. The police find $125,000 in her suitcase. The woman was supposed to deliver that money somewhere and now Casey is going to deliver it instead. It’s a good plan, if it works. Another solid episode.

The Come Back is a racetrack crime story involving counterfeit betting slips. Casey thinks she’s figured out how it’s being worked but she has to go undercover, as a crooked cop. This is another character-driven drama with Casey finding as so often that the case revolves around all-too-common human weaknesses. A good story.

First Arrest is a semi-comic episode. Casey is talking to a young policewoman who has just made her first arrest and feels bad about it so Casey recounts the slightly farcical and slightly sordid story of her own first arrest and how it made her feel that she was using and manipulating people (which in fact she was but that’s what the job is all about). An OK episode at best.

The Lost Ones starts with Casey visiting girl just out of reform school. Casey hopes she’s going to be OK now but it’s not to be. Elsa has shot and killed her violent, drunken father. And now she’s armed and on the run. This is a dysfunctional family drama, with the question being whether the dysfunctionality is going to destroy the whole family. As usual with Decoy the emphasis is not on Casey solving a crime but on her attempts to help people put their lives back together.

Final Thoughts

Decoy is hampered a little by the half-hour format but it still manages to be an emotionally grown-up and very engaging character-driven cop drama. And Beverly Garland is terrific. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

The Avengers - A Touch of Brimstone

Yes, this is it, the infamous banned episode of The Avengers, A Touch of Brimstone. Or at least it was banned by the network in the US during the initial run of the series there. It was screened in Britain in February 1966, despite censorship difficulties, and became the most-watched episode of the series. The censorship difficulties were caused by Mrs Peel’s notorious appearance as the Queen of Sin, and most of all by the scene in which Mrs Peel is whipped.

It’s also famous for featuring one of the great Peter Wyngarde’s finest performances.

It all starts with a series of pranks. The pranks are the sort of thing that would appeal to teenaged boys except that the victims are public figures, often foreign diplomats, and they’re causing all sorts of international repercussions.

Steed has a strong suspect in mind, the Honourable John Cleverly Cartney (Peter Wyngarde), a clever but dissolute minor aristocrat. Cartney has revived the Hellfire Club. There were in fact several real-life Hellfire Clubs in Britain during the 18th century, the most famous being the one established by Sir Francis Dashwood in 1749. They were places in which young gentlemen could indulge themselves in all manner of debauchery and libertinage.

Cartney’s club has the same aims as the original Hellfire Clubs - debauchery with political overtones.

Steed thinks he can get a lead through the young and foolish Lord Darcy, one of Cartney’s cronies. Mrs Peel’s job is to get close to Cartney. She certainly has no trouble attracting his attention. And no trouble getting invited to a meeting of the Hellfire Club.

Steed of course will have to join the Hellfire Club as well, and go through the initiation.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Cartney is planning something much more ambitious than a club for drinking and wenching.

We get some fine fight scenes, including a sword-fight and including Mrs Peel memorably (and wittily) despatching one of the bad guys while dressed in her bondage costume. And of course there’s the whipping scene, which is more a case of Cartney trying to whip Mrs peel rather than actual whipping her.

There’s as much implied sexuality as you could get away with in Britain in 1966 (and obvious a lot more than you could get away with in the US) but I suspect that it was the all-pervasive atmosphere of sex and decadence that sent the American network into a panic rather than any one particular element.

The eighteenth-century costumes are great and the Hellfire Club set is wonderful (especially with the snake slithering about). The opening scene with the chair moving toward the camera establishes an atmosphere of mystery right from the start and provides Peter Wyngarde with a great entrance.

Diana Rigg is very sexy in her bondage outfit and gives another fine performance. Mrs Peel seems genuinely disturbed by the Hellfire Club which gives the episode a sense that this time she and Steed really are up against not just regular bad guys but something truly evil - a villain who glories in his immorality and cruelty.

Steed gets plenty of heroic stuff to do with both swords and umbrellas.

Look out for Carol Cleveland (a regular on Monty Python’s Flying Circus) as Cartney’s girlfriend Sara.

Naturally it’s Peter Wyngarde who steals the show. Nobody could do decadence the way Peter Wyngarde could. Wyngarde would go on to make another memorable appearance in the series in Epic. He would gain much greater fame in Department S and Jason King but I don't think he ever did anything better than A Touch of Brimstone.

James Hill directed. He directed some of the best-known episodes of The Avengers, including The Forget-Me-Knot, Something Nasty in the Nursery and one of my favourite episodes from the Tara King era, Look - (Stop Me If You've Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers... There’s a publicity still for A Touch of Brimstone showing Mrs Peel as the Queen of Sin holding Hill on a leash.

A Touch of Brimstone was written by Brian Clemens who needs no introduction to readers of this blog.

Mrs Peel’s fetish-inspired Queen of Sin costume, consisting of a corset, long black boots with stiletto heels and a dog collar with three-inch spikes, was designed by Diana Rigg herself. And I haven’t mentioned her snake.

There’s real villainy here but there’s plenty of humour as well. The Avengers had a knack of striking just the right balance, never taking itself too seriously but never quite descending into mere silliness. It was an outrageous series but it was outrageousness done with wit and style in a manner that modern television simply cannot replicate.

A Touch of Brimstone effortlessly lives up to its reputation. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. season 2 (1965-66)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was more than just a hit TV series. It was a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. But only for a short time. Meddling by the network resulted in the disastrous third season from which the series was unable to recover and it was cancelled midway through the fourth season. But the second season (which is what we’re concerned with at the moment) which was launched in late 1965 saw the series riding very high indeed in the ratings.

The second season was the first to be shot in colour. The formula was mostly the same as season one, with perhaps a slightly more light-hearted tone. It was not quite as good as season one but it was still very very good. The first two seasons featured often outlandish plots and outrageous villains but the series was not an out-and-out spoof. It was closer in tone to the 1960s Bond movies and to The Avengers. Most spy fans would probably agree that no spy series has ever been able to match the subtle surrealism, the sophisticated playfulness, the wit and the style that The Avengers achieved at its peak. That might be so but in its first two seasons The Man from U.N.C.L.E. goes very very close indeed to matching The Avengers in these areas. 1960s spy television doesn’t get much better than this.

One of the trademarks of the series in its first season was that a typical storyline would revolve around some poor innocent bystander caught up in the world of espionage and that device was used extensively in the second series as well.

With the success of the early Bond movies gadgets had become an essential feature of spy stories. The gadgets in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are remarkably clever in seeming to be suitably high-tech while involving almost nothing in the way of budgetary outlays.

Production values are high by the standards of the day and the sets are often quite inspired. In its early days at least the series had considerable cachet and had no trouble attracting some very fine guest stars. It all adds up to an aura of classiness and quality. The emphasis was on fun, but very well-crafted fun.

Like The Avengers this is a series that perfectly captures the spirit of a very brief moment in history. In 1965 the Swinging 60s were still swinging but hadn’t yet turned weird and crazy. Style and energy were everything. And The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had a great deal of style. By 1967 the Flower Children had arrived and style started to go out the window.

On the subject of style, it’s interesting to look at the two leads. Robert Vaughn plays Napoleon Solo very much as a sophisticated late 1950s American hero. Always impeccably groomed, with clothes that are sharp but conservative. It is impossible to imagine Napoleon Solo wearing jeans. Illya looks more like a 1960s hero, but very much an early 60s hero. His clothes are very 60s but he’s still very neat and well-groomed. Within a very few years both Napoleon and Illya would look decidedly retro. And Napoleon’s suave style with the ladies would seem very retro.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was one of the two great American spy series of the 60s, the other being of course Mission: Impossible. While the plots of Mission: Impossible were so outrageous as to challenge credibility it was played very straight. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was tongue-in-cheek from the start. But the two series do have a number of things in common, things which were characteristic of the best American television of the 60s - they were fast-moving, exciting, polished and very very stylish. And in their very different ways both series were exceptionally cool.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. inspired something of a merchandising bonanza with a wide assortment of toys and similar products. There were also a couple of dozen tie-in novels, which sold by the truckload. They were all original stories and some of them are pretty good. I reviewed The Dagger Affair here a while back. There were also Man from U.N.C.L.E. comics, several young adult novels and a series of novellas published in the Man from U.N.C.L.E. magazine. And of course there was a spin-off series, the ill-fated but somewhat underrated The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

Episode Guide

Alexander the Greater Affair is a two-parter. A tycoon named Alexander sees himself as a modern Alexander the Great. He intends to achieve world domination and his theft of a new top-secret nerve gas that destroys the will to fight is part of his plan. Along the way he also intends to break all of the Ten Commandments. Having lost a game of chess to Napoleon Solo he is also out for revenge and he plans his destruction of our heroes like a chess game. It’s a story that uses lots of clichés from pulp fiction and old movie serials, with buried ancient tombs, secret passageways, fiendish booby traps and a nod to Edgar Allan Poe with a razor-sharp axe on a slowly lowering pendulum. The obligatory innocent bystander caught up in this adventure is Alexander's estranged wife Tracey (played with panache by Dorothy Provine) and she causes Mr Solo and Mr Kuryakin almost as much trouble as Alexander.

The Foxes and Hounds Affair utilises one of the standard tropes of the first season - the innocent bystander who gets hopelessly entangled in a case. A stage magician has invented a mind-reading machine. U.N.C.L.E. wants it and naturally so does THRUSH. U.N.C.L.E. has it at the moment but they have to get it back to their New York headquarters. Mr Waverley decides that a decoy would be useful. That’s where magician’s assistant Mimi Doolittle comes in. She’s the decoy although she doesn’t know it. Napoleon Solo doesn’t know what’s going on either. That’s Mr Waverley’s idea also - if Mr Solo is in danger of having his mind read it’s best if he has no idea what is going on.

The real fun in this episode is the rivalry between local THRUSH chiefs, the suave Victor Marton (Vincent Price) and the glamorous but ruthless Lucia Belmont (Patricia Medina). They’re both trying to sabotage each other in order to gain a promotion. There’s some wonderful witty dialogue in this episode. There are no spectacular sets or fancy gadgets. With Vincent Price and Patricia Medina in such sparkling form such distractions are not needed. A very very fine episode.

In The Arabian Affair Ilya does a Lawrence of Arabia thing and leads an Arab revolt against THRUSH. THRUSH are using their desert base to develop a vaporizer - a disintegrator ray type of thing. Quite a fun episode.

The Deadly Toys Affair is a bit of a romp. There’s one particularly brilliant pupil at an exclusive private school that U.N.C.L.E. are worried about. THRUSH has plans to groom the youngster for a career of evil with them. Angela Lansbury gets to do some splendid overacting as the outrageous Elfie van Donck. A silly but very enjoyable episode.

The Cherry Blossom Affair takes Mr Solo and Mr Kuryakin to Japan where they have to investigate repots that THUSH have developed a way to control the power volcanoes. An excellent episode that strikes just the right balance.

The Children’s Day Affair involves a THRUSH school for young assassins. A very good episode, with good use of the settings (supposedly Switzerland) and with just the right amount of outrageousness. Great performances by the supporting cast in this one, with Warren Stevens subtly unhinged as the school’s headmaster and Jeanne Cooper totally and delightfully perverse as Mother Fear (whose henchmen are very loyal because if they aren’t she gives them a dose of the strap). Susan Silo is fun as a ditzy Italian social worker. Everything works in this one.

In The Indian Affairs Affair THRUSH is working on a thermonuclear bomb at their base concealed on an Indian reservation. THRUSH is putting pressure on the chief through his daughter, an exotic dancer in New York. U.N.C.L.E. are also trying to use the daughter to influence the chief. An OK episode.

The Birds and the Bees Affair is rather fun, wth THRUSH employing swarms of killer bees to wipe out its enemies. There’s also a deadly sound machine, a crooked roulette wheel and a well-meaning but crazy scientist. Mr Kuryakin learns to dance, which he enjoys very much. That might have something to do with the very pretty dance instructress. He has to get to know her in the line of duty. Sometimes doing one’s duty can be remarkably pleasant. The premise is outlandish but clever. It’s classic Man from U.N.C.L.E. stuff.

Where would 1960s action/adventure television be without Nazis? They’re the ultimate reliable standby. In The Re-Collectors Affair a shadowy organisation is hunting down and killing ex-Nazis to retrieve stolen paintings. The paintings are restored to their rightful owners. Sometimes. And at a price. A high price. There is one very puzzling aspect to this case, which of course turns out to be the key. This is typical early Man from U.N.C.L.E. - the camp factor is pretty much non-existent. It’s a fairly neat story done in a reasonably straightforward spy thriller manner and it works very well.

The Deadly Goddess Affair takes Napoleon and Ilya to the Island of Circe in the Mediterranean, to intercept a THRUSH radio-controlled aircraft carrying secret plans and money. They get drawn into various local dramas. Mia Corragio wants to marry but she cannot do so until her older sister Angela gets married - it is the local custom. But no-one will marry Angela without a dowry. Except maybe a rich American might do so. And that nice Mr Solo is obviously a rich American. The two U.N.C.L.E. agents also get drawn into the plans of the Corragio girls’ impoverished father’s plans to sell antiquities to visiting rich Americans. It all becomes outrageously farcical, and a great deal of fun. The ludicrously sinister THRUSH agent Colonel Hubris adds even more enjoyment to the mix. A delightfully entertaining episode.

The Round Table Affair concerns a tiny European principality with curiously has no extradition treaties with any other countries. Which is why a collection of assorted gangsters plans to take over. Arranging a suitably advantageous (advantageous for the gangsters) marriage for the Grand Duchess is part of the plan. U.N.C.L.E. must prevent this. Much medieval-flavoured silliness ensues and it’s rather good fun.

You can’t really go wrong with a spy thriller set on board a train so The Adriatic Express Affair has that going for it for starters. Solo and Kuryakin are trying to get their hands on  a virus culture which THRUSH can use as the ultimate weapon - it destroys the human urge to reproduce. It’s in the hands of Madame Olga Nemirovitch, the ageing but glamorous owner of a cosmetics empire. She also claims to have been the founder of THRUSH. In typical Man from U.N.C.L.E. style there is an innocent caught in the middle - a young assistant named Eva from one of Madame’s beauty salons. Madame convinces her that Napoleon is a dangerous THRUSH agent who must be stopped at all costs. This one throws in every thriller-on-a-train trope in existence. There’s even a fight scene on the roof of a carriage. Jessie Royce Landis overacts outrageously as Madame while Juliet Mills is delightful as the naïve Eva. This story offers non-stop fast-paced fun with just enough outlandishness to provide superb entertainment value.

If you were a secret criminal organisation like THRUSH and you had something (like the ultimate computer) that you wanted to protect in a kind of fortress with lots of guns and guards then what better place to choose than a prison, which is already a kind of fortress with lots of guns and guards. That’s the idea behind The Ultimate Computer Affair. In order to get into this prison (in South America) Illya gets himself arrested and Napoleon poses as the English upper-class twit husband of a prison inspector. It’s a fun fast-paced romp.

The Waverly Ring Affair is a relatively straightforward spy thriller story. There’s a traitor within U.N.C.L.E. and the situation is so serious that Mr Waverly has issued Mr Solo with a Waverly Ring, which ensures instant unquestioning obedience from any U.N.C.L.E. agent. But it seems that someone else has a Waverly Ring. And an U.N.C.L.E. has to be de-trained, a process that erases all memories of his employment with the organisation. It’s a very extreme step. Solo and Kuryakin have to find the traitor but they’re not if they can trust anyone at all. This one is played fairly straight with only a few tongue-in-cheek touches. A good episode.

The Bat Cave Affair is quite goofy, with Martin Landau overacting outrageously as a Transylvanian count with a plan to disrupt international air traffic with bats. Vampire bats of course. Illya had enough to deal with getting away from the bull. U.N.C.L.E. gets some help from a hillbilly girl with clairvoyant powers. It’s silly but it’s fun.

In The Discotheque Affair Napoleon, injured during an investigation, finds himself on light duties keeping an eye on some property owned by U.N.C.L.E., the property being next door to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. One of the tenants, a ditzy blonde actress, is causing problems. The building also includes a discotheque which is actually a front for THRUSH. As is so many of the early season episodes we have an innocent bystander (the ditzy blonde actress) caught up in the middle of a case. This episode features go-go dancing and as far as I’m concerned any movie or TV show that includes groovy 60s chicks go-go dancing (especially cage dancing) is A-OK. And overall it’s a fun episode.

In The Dippy Blonde Affair the innocent bystander drawn into the world of espionage is not quite so innocent as most. JoJo has been a bit of a bad girl. She has a very long and colourful police record. She’s the girlfriend of a senior THRUSH official. But she is willing to help U.N.C.L.E. so that’s something. And the local THRUSH chief (her boyfriend’s superior) is madly in love with her. The THRUSH headquarters in the graveyard is a highlight. Napoleon and Ilya manage to get themselves captured over and over again. It’s a non-stop thoroughly enjoyable romp and JoJo is a delight.

In The Virtue Affair a M. Robespierre, a descendant of the infamous Robespierre, having run unsuccessfully for the presidency of France (on a platform of banning wine) now seems to be contemplating more direct method. He has been accumulating missile components, and missile scientists.

In The Project Deephole Affair THRUSH is trying to kidnap a geologist but they become convinced that Buzz Conway is that geologist. In fact Buzz Conway is a one-time used car salesman, encyclopaedia salesman and blackjack dealer, unemployed and trying to dodge debt collectors. So it’s another example of the innocent bystander caught up in a spy drama of which he understands nothing. Jack Weston is fun as Conway while Barbara Bouchet is delightful as the glamorous but hopelessly self-absorbed THRUSH superspy Narcissus Darling.

The Tigers Are Coming Affair takes Napoleon and Illya to India where Prince Panat is causing U.N.C.L.E. some concern. Missing villagers, that sort of thing. U.N.C.L.E. enlists the help of glamorous French botanist Suzanne de Serre (Jill Ireland). Napoleon and Illya join a tiger hunt, but are they the hunters or the hunted? A reasonably good episode.

In The Foreign Legion Affair Illya has to make quick escape from an aircraft, by parachute, over the desert. Now when you have to jump to save your life you obviously look for something you can grab quickly to take with you, something that will help you survive the cold nights of the desert. So naturally Illya grabs the pretty blonde stewardess. Having landed in the desert they find themselves prisoners of war of the French Foreign Legion, suspected of being spies. Illya tries to explain to the commandant, Captain Basil Calhoun that the Legion doesn’t exist any more but Captain Calhoun begs to differ. It soon becomes obvious to Illya and his little stewardess friend that Captain Calhoun is quite mad and getting to Marrakesh, where they need to go, may be a challenge. Napoleon meanwhile falls into the hands of THRUSH but luckily there’s a pretty girl in a cute harem outfit to make his captivity a little bit more bearable. Overall this episode is pretty slight but reasonably enjoyable.

The Very Important Zombie Affair takes Solo and Kuryakin to a small Caribbean nation where they have to rescue an opposition leader, a man named Delgado, from the evil president, El Supremo. The problem is that El Supremo has turned Delgado into a zombie. They’re going to have to find a voodoo priestess to solve that problem. Of course there’s a glamorous but ditzy female to help them, a manicurist from Louisiana. I just love anything with voodoo and zombies so I was always going to like this one, even if the surprise ending is not that much of a surprise.

The Minus-X Affair sees THRUSH getting hold of a drug called Plus-X which not only enhances the senses to an extraordinary degree but seems to enhance the intelligence as well. If you’re good at something and you take this drug suddenly you’re better at that something than anyone else in the world. THRUSH has found a use for Plus-X which could have disastrous consequences. There’s also a variant called Minus-X which has other interesting effects. There’s a brilliant scientist whose loyalties may be suspect and there’s a beautiful girl (the scientist’s daughter) whom THRUSH intends to use as a bargaining counter. It’s a very solid episode with plenty of classic Man from U.N.C.L.E. elements.

Final Thoughts

My review of the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. can be found here. The second season might not be quite as good but it’s very nearly so and it's still superb spy adventure television with all the right ingredients perfectly combined. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex, 1st Gig

Ghost in the Shell started life as a manga by Shirow Masamune. In 1995 the Ghost in the Shell movie was released. It was something of a ground-breaking event in the history of anime science fiction movies and remains one of the best entries in the genre. A sequel movie followed in 2004. But the incarnation we are concerned with here is the 2002 television series Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex. Interestingly, it doesn’t take place in quite the same timeline as the original movie.

The protagonist in all the various versions of Ghost in the Shell is Major Motoko Kusanagi, the number one field operative for Public Security Section 9. Section 9 is a top-secret counter-intelligence counter-terrorism outfit. Section 9 handles cases that are too sensitive or too dangerous for any other Japanese Government agencies. In this near-future world that means mostly counter-terrorism work and that work mostly involves artificial intelligences. It also means tangling with other intelligence agencies and getting involved in some nasty political infighting.

It should be explained first of all that Major Motoko Kusanagi is not entirely human. She is a cyborg but she is much more robot than human. In fact there’s there’s only one human thing about her. She still has a human brain. Which means she still has a ghost. Ghost in this context refers to the essential core of our personalities and most importantly it refers to our memories. Our human memories. Whether the ghost is also a soul or not is a question to which no-one in this future world can give a definite answer. What matters is that it is the ghost that makes us human. The body is just the shell. The Major has a ghost. Is that enough to make her a woman rather than a machine? She thinks that it is, but she’s not sure.

The concept of the ghost and its relationship to the shell was at the core of the original movie and it’s a theme that is elaborated upon in many different ways in the Stand Alone Complex TV series.

There are two kinds of episodes in this series. There are the Stand Alone episodes and there are the Complex episodes. The Complex episodes form part of an ongoing story arc. While the Stand Alone episodes are self-contained stories they also contribute to the gradual building up of our understanding of this cyberpunk future world, of the main characters, and in particular to our understanding of Motoko Kusanagi’s contradictory and slightly troubled personality.

While the Major was very much the central character in the original movie there are many episodes of the series in which she takes a back seat.

Special mention must be made of the great opening and closing songs composed by Yôko Kanno.

If you haven’t delved much into anime the Ghost in the Shell franchise is not a bad place to start - there’s plenty of intelligent and complex science fiction ideas without too much weirdness and there’s plenty of action. Since it takes place in a subtly different timeline you could watch the TV series before watching the movie, but both are equally worth seeing. There are other excellent science fiction anime series (such as Cowboy Bebop) but some of them tend a bit too much towards giant robots or they’re mind-numbingly complex (such as the superb Serial Experiments Lain).

Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex is very much in the cyberpunk mould. Some of the violence is quite graphic and there is a small amount of nudity. Whether anime nudity bothers you or appeals to you is a matter of taste but there’s very little of it and there’s no sexual weirdness although there are some sexual themes. The violence is much less extreme than that found in some anime TV such as Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.

This is anime for grown-ups and in any case is going to be way too complex and cerebral for younger kids.

The coolness factor is very high.

Cyberpunk is a genre that you might think would date very quickly but good cyberpunk (and this series is definitely very good cyberpunk) actually doesn’t date because it’s not really concerned about the details of how technology works. It’s more concerned with the social and existential consequences of technology.

The DVD boxed set offers both the English dubbed version and the Japanese language version with English subtitles.

Episode Guide

The first episode gives us a hostage drama with the terrorists being geisha robots(!) and a senior government minister being one of the victims. He isn’t killed but something worse happens to him.

The second episode is another standalone. A new advanced multiped tank runs amok and heads for the city. Section 9 needs to know who is controlling that tank and what it is they want. It doesn’t seem to be a terrorist incident. The tank has been careful to avoid human fatalities. A curiously bitter-sweet episode.

Episode three is more interesting still. There’s a wave of mass suicides, among androids. To be specific, among a particular model of female sex robot. The Jeri model had been extremely popular but is now out of production. However the Jeri still has its hardcore fans who are addicted to its particular charms. But why would someone want to destroy these sexbots? Because this is a case of mass murder, not mass suicide. Of course robots cannot actually be murdered, or commit suicide for that matter. They’re not human and they don’t have real feelings. Unless of course the rumours are true, that some androids have ghosts. Which means they may in fact be alive. Whatever alive means, and there’s no certainty about the meaning of that term in this world.

Episode four begins a series of complex episodes concerning the Laughing Man, a super-hacker cyber-terrorist. The story is however much more complex than that. The Laughing Man may or may not exist. He may be several people. Or several groups of people, or organisations. His motives are completely unknown. It’s an actually an old unsolved case but Section 9 now has some ambiguous evidence that might justify reopening. And in fact the case is about to become a very live case. This is full-on cyberpunk stuff and it’s very nicely executed.

In episode seven Section 9 is concerned about a foreign revolutionary leader who has been the subject of countless assassination attempts. So many that it seems a miracle he’s still alive. This story is another exploration of posthumanist themes and more specifically the psychological dimensions of posthumanism.

Episode eight deals with organ harvesting. This is a future in which artificial organs are available but there’s still a market for actual organs. This is a story with personal significance for the Major, bringing back childhood memories (and memories are incredibly important to her given that they’re the one truly human thing about her).

Episode nine takes place entirely in an internet chat room as Motoko tries to find more clues to the Laughing Man case. Of course what happens is what you’d expect in an internet forum - lots of conspiracy theories being tossed around. Some of them might be true. They might all be true. They might all be false. In the internet age can we know the truth about anything?

In episode ten Batou must confront ghosts from his own past as Section 9 hunts a particularly savage serial killer. They’re getting coöperation (of a sort) from the CIA but they begin to suspect that this killer may have been created by the CIA as part of a particularly nasty phase of the Third World War.

In episode eleven Togusa goes undercover in a clinic that treats children with cyberbrain closed shell syndrome, a kind of cyberpunk autism thing. These children are being used for something, but what? And is it connected to the Laughing Man case?

In episode twelve one of the tachikomas wanders off on its own and befriends a little girl who is looking for her lost dog. And the tachikoma finds a cyberbrain which causes great consternation in Section 9.

In episode thirteen a young girl kidnapped by the terrorist anti-cybernetic Human Evolutionary Front reappears sixty years late, looking not a day older. Section 9 has to assault an abandoned floating factory complex and what they find is more than a little disturbing. In this future world there is clearly tension between those in favour of cybernetics and those bitterly opposed to it on ideological grounds. A very good episode.

In episode fourteen Section 9 is investigating a financier whose transactions, on an enormous scale, are causing some concern. The Major also has to deal with a young lady who is actually a yakuza battle cyborg, but what the yakuza’s interest is in this matter remains to be seen. A good episode.

In episode fifteenth Major decides that the tachikomas are becoming a problem. They’re starting to show signs of individuality, which is not supposed to happen. They’re starting to take an interest in philosophical and even theological questions. They’re supposed to be reliable weapons systems and she’s not convinced they can be trusted if they’re questioning the nature of the cosmos and the existence of God. Maybe they’ll have to be dismantled but that’s going to be tricky. The tachikomas are very good at surveillance. How will they react if they find out? Not much action in this story, in fact one at all, but it does deal with one of the recurring themes of the series - the relationship between humans and robots.

Episode sixteen focuses on Batou. He has to investigate a former champion boxer named Zaitsev, suspected of espionage. Batou finds this mission to be emotionally draining. He admires Zaitsev but at the same time despises him for dishonouring himself.

In episode seventeen Motoko and the Chief are in London for a counterterrorism conference. The Chief is asked for help by a lady friend whose bank may have become involved in Mafia money-laundering. The bank is robbed and the robbers take the Chief and his lady friend hostage and then events take several unexpected turns. The British police turn down Motoko’s offer of help but needless to say that doesn’t stop her. A very clever plot with some nice twists. Excellent episode.

In episode eighteen there’s an assassination plot against a visiting Chinese government official, with some personal complications for Aramaki (the Chief of Section 9) involving an old friend, now deceased.

Episode nineteen involves a fiendishly complicated plot to kidnap girls, apparently for organ harvesting. One of the kidnapped girls is the daughter of the former prime minister but everything hinges on whether the kidnappers knew that. And on the relationship between the ex-PM and the Northern Territories Mafia. Is there a double-cross going on? A good episode.

Episode twenty is a Complex episode, another instalment in the Laughing Man saga. Things are becoming more and more paranoid with a number of government agencies involved in trying to suppress a vaccine for a cyberbrain vaccine. Togusa thinks he has a lead but he may not know what he’s getting himself into.

Episode twenty-one is another Complex episode, with Section 9 in conflict with the narc squad. And when I say conflict I mean they’re shooting at each other. It’s all connected with that vaccine.

Episode twenty-two is also a Complex episode, with more on the conflict with the narc squad. Someone is trying to get at Aramaki and their methods are pretty ruthless. Major Kusanagi has a slight problem. Her body is completely kaput so she needs a new one and you have no idea how embarrassing a procedure that can be. It can make a girl quite annoyed and when the Major is annoyed it’s best to keep clear.

Episode twenty-three is a very talky explanatory episode giving more details of the conspiracy involving medical micromachines and cyberbrain vaccines, and the kidnapping of the head of Serano Genomics which may or may not have been connected with the Laughing Man.

In episode twenty-four Section 9 itself is under siege as a result of corrupt political machinations. It’s a fight for survival. Lots of action in this stand alone episode. I can’t say anything at all about the plotlines of the final three episodes without revealing spoilers. All I will say is that at the end it gets quite existential and starts to seriously confront the consequences of living in an artificial information-saturated society.

Final Thoughts

Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex is complex grown-up science fiction (although it’s certainly not without humour and light-hearted moments). And there’s no shortage of action. Very highly recommended.

It's available on both DVD and Blu-Ray in boxed sets which also include the second season (or 2nd Gig).